I'm in Uzbekistan. New country, new cities, new people, new language, new money. I feel like i'm starting all over again.
I was still in Kyrgyzstan the last time i wrote on here. Osh was a dusty city with a massive market, lots of restaurants and a large hill in the middle of town called Soloman's Throne where Prophet Mohammed apparently once prayed. I got drunk for the first time in a long time gulping down vodka and beer in varying amounts with other tourists and travellers from my guesthouse. Kyrgyzstan vodka is not recommended. Even by the Kyrgyzstan vodka manufacturers. It's vile.
I met a Korean guy in my guesthouse who was also traveling to Uzbekistan and we got the wrong minibus and ended up at the airport but eventually found the way to the border and on to the city of Andijon further west. It was very obvious entering Uzbekistan that we'd entered a police state. There were checkpoints on the road where drivers were ordered to stop and show some ID. Police are an obvious part of life here. No free media exists and elections are always won by president Islam Karimov who has a firm hold on the leadership.
Andijon is famous for markets and massacres. The Jahon Bazzar on Sunday mornings makes every other shopping experience i've had seem like a closed convenience store. It sells everything from boxing gloves to bullets, swords to salads, chairs to chimps. Everything. And it's huge. Unfortunately few tourists venture to Andijon to see the market or the friendly funny people as it's seen as a dangerous part of Central Asia after what happened on May 13 2005. President Karimov used the War on Terror to keep his grip on power by locking up (or just killing) any of his opponents or critics by labelling them Islamic fundamentalists or terrorists. Twenty local businessmen in Andijon were locked up in 2005 on such charges but their supporters demonstrated outside the prison and in Barbur Square in the centre on town. The police and army opened fire and killed between 200 and 1000 people - the exact figure is unknown.
But for all the police and the horror stories the people are huge hearted and always smiling, the streets are safe and the taxi drivers as manic as ever. Andijon was home to thousands of minivans that whizzed people to all parts of the city in cramped, hot and fast conditions. As we were there at the weekend the banks were closed so we had to change money on the black market. The current exchange rate is about 1850 Uzbek Sum to 1 US dollar but the highest bank note in Uzbekistan is 1000 Sum which makes changing 100 dollars a unique experience. Especially when the money changers stand on the street corner holding carrier bags full of cash. It took me ten minutes to count my money.
After a shared taxi ride i arrived in Fergana with it's large parks, dusty streets and another massive market. I stayed in an old Soviet hotel complete with peeling wallpaper and a lift that sounded like a tank. Fergana is a cosmopolitan little place with plenty of Russians and lots of ethnic Koreans who, for some reason, were brought here by the Japanese when Korea was a Japanese colony. It also has an open air disco nightclub thing right outside the hotel which pumped music for hours into the night.
Getting from Fergana to Tashkent at the end of Ramadan was a bad idea but eventually i found my way into the front seat of a shared taxi and we buzzed through the traffic and checkpoints to the capital city along roads that Kyrgyzstan can only dream of. I stayed in a guesthouse owned by a man called Ali who was always drunk on vodka or in the process of getting drunk on vodka whilst telling all the guests to join him and get drunk on vodka. Uzbek vodka is worse than the Kyrgyz variety. I slept in a dorm room with a Russian guy who walked around wearing his boxer shorts, way too much aftershave and not much else and played crap music as loud as possible on his laptop. I also met two monosyllabic Polish guys, a funny German, a Canadian know-it-all and a Pakistani who once visited Germany and had "twenty two girlfriends in twenty two days". Funny place.
Tashkent is an old gritty city with some new shiny buildings thrown into it. The metro doubles as a nuclear shelter and the trains rattle through the tunnels with their lights blinking making you feel like a spy in Bond movie from the seventies. There are also lots of signs around that say Tashkent 2200. I can only hope that it's not a two hundred year plan to modernise the city. It's a bit disheartening if you live here. As if the government is saying, "Yes, it's a bit of a shit tip now, but just wait two centuries. It'll be great."
I leave tonight on a train to the far west. Apparently there's plenty to see in Uzbekistan besides policemen and markets and checkpoints and vodka and dusty towns. At least i hope so.